Friday, 18 April 2014

P is for phthisis (tuberculosis)

My fourth great grandfather (4*great) John Plaisted (1800-1858) died of phthisis, more commonly known as tuberculosis.

In early colonial days the disease was a part of daily life and few families were lucky enough to avoid it. There was no cure. The usual medical advice was a move to a warm, dry climate, a nutritious, nourishing diet, and complete rest. 

According to the 1841 census, John Plaisted was a wine merchant in Camberwell, Surrey, England. But in 1847 he sold his business and retired to South Devon.  In 1849 he sailed to Australia on the Rajah arriving in Adelaide in 1850 with his wife, six children and his sister-in-law. His wife's brother and sister had already emigrated to Adelaide. Although we don't know for sure, it seems quite possible that he came to Australia as the climate would be better for his health. (Hudson, Helen Lesley (1985). Cherry stones : adventures in genealogy of Taylor, Hutcheson, Hawkins of Scotland, Plaisted, Green, Hughes of England and Wales ... who immigrated to Australia between 1822 and 1850. H.L. Hudson, [Berwick] Vic. Page 58)

Adelaide was recommended as a good climate for tuberculosis sufferers. Charles Hill, for example, who emigrated to Adelaide in 1854, came in the hope the climate would be beneficial.  (Goldsworthy, Kerryn (2011). Adelaide. NewSouth Publishing, Sydney page 68 retrieved from Google books

The Plaisted family moved to Melbourne. They were living at 100 Collins Street when John finally succumbed to his illness.

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium. The most common type is an infection of the lungs.  A common symptom is a persistent cough and later coughing up blood.  The patient loses his appetite and then weight. Other symptoms include a high temperature, night sweats and extreme tiredness. Tuberculosis was a slow killer; patients could waste away for years.

Tuberculosis was often seen as a romantic disease. In 1821 most famously the poet John Keats died aged 25. In 1828 Lord Byron wrote  "I should like to die of consumption. The ladies would all say, 'Look at that poor Byron, how interesting he looks in dying!"

John Keats in his Last Illness, engraved after the sketch by Joseph Severn, from the book The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, May to October, 1883 By Joseph Arthur Palliser Severn 1842-1931 image retrieved from

The graph below shows that the death rate from tuberculosis was 4,000 deaths per 1 million people in 1838 fell to around 3,000 per million in 1850. In the 1800s nearly a quarter of all deaths were due to tuberculosis. In Australia in the late nineteenth century tuberculosis was the leading cause of death, "20 times deadlier per capita than all cancer conditions today put together." In Australia there are still about 1,200 cases each year but it is relatively under control. However, worldwide 1.7 million people still die of the disease each year. (Britton, Warwick. "TB in Australia." Infectious Diseases. Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2014. <>.)

Graph of Death rates from respiratory tuberculosis in England and Wales from Integrating nutrition into programmes of primary health care, Food and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 10, Number 4, 1988 (United Nations University Press, 1988, 74 p.) retrieved from  "Death rates from respiratory tuberculosis in England and Wales shows the fall in tuberculosis in England and Wales before BCG or therapies such as isoniazid and streptomycin were available. Similar declines were observed for the other common infectious diseases. McKeown concludes that improvement in food supplies and nutrition is the only reasonable explanation for these declines in mortality. Similar trends are occurring in developing countries today in areas in which some nutritional improvement has occurred despite little or no access to medical services."

Other blog entries about the Plaisted family  and their relations: